Smaller contenders widening release

This article was updated at 6:35 p.m.

With the Academy favoring so many small pics in its nominations — four of the best picture contenders cost less than $14 million to produce — more pics this year have the opportunity to capitalize on Oscar buzz at the box office, and make already successful pics even more profitable.

Though studios now routinely devise release strategies betting that kudos attention will boost commercial prospects, the Acad’s announcement sent distrib departments into a flurry of activity to book new theaters for their contenders.

Focus Features’ “Brokeback Mountain,” which garnered eight noms, has already cumed more than $50 million and is now set to widen its run past 2,000 theaters this weekend, up from 1,654.

“Historically, the nominations invigorate business for a film,” said Focus distrib topper Jack Foley, who added he already saw a bump in East Coast matinees for the Ang Lee-helmed pic. “With a best picture nomination you get a big punch.”

Universal is also hoping that the Acad’s five noms for Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” will help that pic, which has struggled to gross $40 million since it was released Dec. 23, get a needed second wind.

Spielberg said Acad attention gives “Munich” a “tremendous second opportunity to find its audience in America, to bring in some people who might have been afraid to see the film or were cautious about it.”

U distrib prexy Nikki Rocco was busy Tuesday morning revamping the distrib pattern. “Our distribution plans have changed because this certainly gives new visibility to the film.” By midday, plans were to play the pic in 1,120 theaters Friday, up from 980 last weekend.

Though it’s already been in theaters for four months, Sony Pictures Classics is angling to push “Capote” into up to 1,500 venues Friday to capitalize on its five noms, including best pic and an actor nod for Philip Seymour Hoffman.

“It’s how you set your movie up, and ours is set to catch at this point in the voting period,” label co-topper Tom Bernard said. Though released on Sept. 30, Sony Classics has held the pic back during its release, peaking at 348 screens Jan. 20. The slow rollout has collected $15 million so far for the $6.7 million-budgeted pic.

“We’ve been playing in arthouses since Sept. 30,” he said. “There was a difficulty in getting a people to know who Truman Capote was. This puts us in the mainstream of American attention.”

Likewise, Warner Independent Pictures’ “Good Night, and Good Luck” has also had a leggy perf, taking in $25 million in its 17-week run. The George Clooney-helmed film played on over 800 screens back in November, but distrib chief Steven Friedlander said the label is taking it even wider — up to 900 playdates — Friday.

Historically, the period between Oscar nominations and the Oscar ceremony has been the most lucrative period at the box office for kudos-contending pics.

Over the past three years, the best pic Oscar nominees have grossed on average $28 million between when the noms are announced and when the statuettes are handed out. For comparison’s sake, pics that received a best pic nom in the Golden Globes but not the Oscars have posted just $8 million at the box office over the same period.

The pics that have traditionally benefited the most are the specialty pics that haven’t yet gone out in wide release. Last year both “Million Dollar Baby” and “Sideways” saw significant boosts between the noms and awards. Warner Bros. waited until the Friday after noms were announced to take “Million Dollar Baby,” which went on to win best pic, into wide release. And over the next four weekends, pic took in $56.5 million of its $100 million domestic cume.

Likewise, Fox Searchlight’s “Sideways,” which ultimately cumed $71 million, found $31 million of its domestic grosses in the noms-to-ceremony span.

In recent years, another pic able to capitalize on its Oscar buzz was Miramax’s “Chicago,” which grossed $70 million of its $171 million domestic cume between the time it was nominated and the Oscar ceremony.

Though Oscars-nominated pics get big boosts at theaters, the effect is also felt in homevid. Clooney added that the honors have a long shelf life and the words “nominated for six Academy Awards” will be a big boost to the “Good Night” DVD, which will be released March 16.

Lionsgate’s “Crash,” the only best pic nominee not currently in theaters, is also expecting a sales boost for the disc, which was first released Sept. 6.

On the foreign front, the Oscars noms are a big help to “Munich,” as UIP has been hoping for legs in overseas markets. “Munich” led the foreign box office last weekend with a respectable $14.6 million at about 3,000 playdates in 26 markets, then added $2 million Monday.

Having opened in every major territory, pic is moving into seven mid-level markets, including Norway and Portugal, next weekend.

“Brokeback Mountain” has already put together back-to-back weekends of more than $6 million internationally even though it’s only on 1,034 screens in 10 markets. Best numbers so far have come from the U.K. with $10.7 million after four weeks and $3.2 million from Spain in two weeks; foreign cume’s $22.5 million.

Sony’s given itself time to handle “Capote” waiting until Feb. 18 to launch the pic abroad. First up is Italy, followed by Spain and the U.K. on Feb. 24 and Germany on March 2. Launches will be fairly moderate with probably no more than 50 screens per market.

“Good Night, Good Luck,” which is owned overseas by Mark Cuban’s 2929 Intl., will re-release in Italy, where it’s taken in $3 million. Pic opened three weeks ago in France, where it’s taken in $2.2 million so far and is set to debut Feb. 10 in Spain and then Feb. 17 in Blighty.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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